We don't save people's lives

Richard Huntington
Richard Huntington

It's something that can feel uncomfortable at times like this.

It used to be a joke, didn't it? With a laugh in our throats, we would chortle that what we do "isn't exactly brain surgery" or that "no-one dies". It doesn't feel like a joke any more.

Let’s be very clear: while we do support people’s livelihoods, we don’t save people’s lives. Not one of us.

And that can feel uncomfortable at times like this. A reminder that while we chose a career that is stimulating, creative, fun and occasionally lucrative, it isn’t vital. None of us will be on the list of essential roles that mean our children continue to be educated. Our colleagues may well be, but we won’t.

And as the businesses that we serve face unprecedented pressures on supply, production, distribution, service and staffing, it’s going to be an odd time to be a marketer. It will sometimes feel that we are bit players in the extraordinary drama that is unfolding around us.

In a world that has to think tactically, as the situation changes day to day the truth is that we are more comfortable with the longer term. We build brands and businesses for the future. We identify new sources of revenue for the future. We understand the way consumer behaviour is changing in the future.

In a world where everything from the supply chain to people’s survival is dependent on collaboration and co-operation, the truth is that every fibre of our being is dedicated to competitiveness, to finding and exploiting advantages that we hold and weaknesses in others.

And in a world where people are increasingly focused on the very basics of life and living, the truth is that we work more naturally at the top of the hierarchy of needs. We shape brands that create a sense of belonging and enable people to express themselves and their sense of identity.

So, at a time like this, it’s important that we remember marketing’s duty to serve and understand where and how we can make the right kind of difference. That is about brand stewardship and it’s about selfless creativity.

Whatever this crisis is or isn’t, it is an economic catastrophe, right on the heels of the global banking crisis, a decade of austerity and the madness of Brexit. And we know our primary responsibility in times like this, since we have endured recession after recession in our working lives. That is about making sure there is a business left when this all ends.

While finding ways to do more with less and playing our part in the cost savings that our businesses demand, marketers must hold the line on advertising investment. Time and time again, experience tell us that those that invest in brand advertising, maintaining or increasing it during recession, benefit when the economy recovers. The data is unequivocal; cutting brand support now will harm your brand and your ability to grow share.

Moreover, it is very clear that it takes years for brands and businesses to build back the share and equity losses that result from investment reductions in recession. It may be true that over very short periods it does little harm for a brand to "go dark", but as weeks turn to months this is a very dangerous game, akin to playing Russian roulette with every chamber filled.

Uncomfortable though it may feel, as firefighting becomes the order of the day, our primary duty has to be to the long-term success of our brands and businesses, ensuring that when this crisis ends they are in a position to prosper. This requires real stewardship.

Once we have taken the right measures to protect the future, we can and should turn our attention to the shorter term. To the ways in which our ability to solve new problems with creativity and novelty can help the immediate future of our businesses, their customers and the broader community.

It is right that we divert some of our energy towards shorter-term initiatives aimed at solving immediate issues, for the good of those around us and for the good of our brands. Indeed, the actions that our businesses take over the coming months will be remembered for years to come.

But here’s the thing – to do this well, we need to curb our enthusiasm and supress the natural marketer in all of us. Specifically, we have to remember this crisis really isn’t about us or our brands. That is something that doesn’t come easily to people like us, schooled as we are in the raw narcissism of marketing. We are all going to have to learn to be selfless.

Selflessness is precisely what separates actions like Guinness supporting bar staff wages or Iceland being the first to open its stores early for vulnerable groups from the crasser attempts to help. That kind of selfish brand behaviour, with its slick social media coverage, though rightly applauded in peace time leaves behind a bitter taste and whiff of opportunism in days like these.

Put simply, if what you are thinking of doing to help has you imagining the press release or planning a trip to Cannes next winter, you should put your pen down right now. This is about selfless creativity.

A crisis like this reminds marketers that we are mortals. The true heroes in our communities and companies are those on the front line, exposing themselves to danger to look after the vulnerable and ill or getting to work because what they do really matters right now. 

Much though we like the centre stage, it’s a moment for us to step back and remember our duty to serve as marketers. On the one hand, swift, impactful and meaningful problem-solving born of our creativity that eschews our natural narcissism for selflessness. And, on the other, evidence-led brand stewardship, so that when this crisis ends we have businesses that are as fit and healthy as we are.

Richard Huntington is chairman and chief strategy officer at Saatchi & Saatchi London

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